With world leaders discussing how to assist Europe with its refugee crisis, the focus should shift. More needs to be done to help refugees in the Middle East, says former Polish deputy foreign minister Jerzy Pomianowski.
Lebanon has the highest count of refugees per capita - one-fourth of the Lebanese population is made up of Syrian refugees
Under the main theme Media. Freedom. Values. this year's Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum will address a number of global issues, one of them being the plight of refugees from the Middle East. Jerzy Pomianowski, the Executive Director of the European Endowment for Democracy and former deputy foreign minister of Poland, will join us this summer on one of our main panel discussions in Bonn.
Deutsche Welle: What kind of development work is European Endowment for Democracy doing to help rebuild the civil society in Syria?
Jerzy Pomianowski: Indeed the European Endowment for Democracy is quite engaged in Syria itself and also in the neighboring countries where we have Syrian refugees that are also in need of basic non-humanitarian assistance as well as humanitarian assistance. Our role is to find the best way to address the needs for free media, for organizing debate among themselves, for organizing debate with the different partners from outside to understand better what is happening in the world, and at the same time to prepare them for the future - let's hope for a democratic transition in Syria. This is still looking like a very far perspective, but I think we should be aware that what we are doing or what we are not doing today will have a direct impact on the future ability of the Syrian society to really build a better Syria than they lived before.
Is it not far too early to be speaking of rebuilding Syria?
Last year, over one million people made the dangerous journey to Europe in search of a better future
Well obviously, I promote the point of view that it is not too early, it is even too late. Because the Syrian refugees are already outside of Syria for three, some of them four years, or even longer. And during this period of time, a whole generation of young people are exposed to radicalization, they are frustrated. They do not understand what is taking so long, what is going on around them, why the big powers are negotiating for so long for peace in Syria and so on. And in that context, while we are contemplating what is too late or too early, we could be spending more money on education or on supporting even embryonic forms of Syrian civil society living in those camps and providing basic services for their own community.
I was in Lebanon a week ago visiting many legal and illegal settlements and camps that are in Lebanon, but also in Turkey and Jordan. And the majority of the people in the camps there do have ambition to do something to make their lives easier but they face a lot of barriers. And so I think there is a lot of room for the international community to address that energy, the willingness of the people there to do something - not just to go and receive food and medication through the UN agencies. I am not saying nothing is happening, but it is much too little.
What was your experience like at the refugee camps in Lebanon?
Well first of all, it is a very strong experience for anyone who goes there. Because we see people there, most of whom have no money to pay the bandits who are providing boats to go to the coast of Greece or the coast of Italy. So we see the people who are really, really in trouble. And we also see people who have not necessarily had enough education to understand why what is happening is happening. So they are very much fragmented, especially in Lebanon. They are living in 700 different settlements, many of which are not even officially recognized by the UNHCR. So they are not receiving any official humanitarian assistance. Among the refugees, there are people who are local leaders, former teachers and engineers who are looking for a job to survive within the Lebanese reality, which of course is difficult. They are willing to provide services for their own community, but they are facing a lot of barriers - legal barriers, but also organizational and financial barriers. They are also facing enormous difficulties regarding legal status. Some of them are facing problems with employers that are not paying their salaries. So many small and big issues that can be helped by programs guided by for example European NGOs but also by direct support to the very embryonic community base, NGOs in Lebanon. So there is need for a joint effort, new programming, to provide a new set of resources, but at the same time, we need to negotiate with the Lebanese government to form a proper framework to provide this assistance. And I think this needs to be addressed now when we are talking about support to the Syrian refugees in neighboring countries.
Reports are increasing about disillusioned refugees who have made it to Germany but who are now deciding to either go back home or to Turkey for example. What do you think of that situation?
Well this is a phenomenon that we know also from the past, that dreams are always better than reality. And there are not only Syrian refugees, but Iraqis, Pakistanis, Afghans, many other nationalities. So this is part of the bigger issue. Migration pressure toward a richer part of the world, toward a more peaceful part of the world, is understandable. But of course it has to be controlled in a bureaucratic way because people in Europe feel that their security is somehow threatened. Personally, I think the Syrian refugees are grateful to find a way to live peacefully and have a place to wait until they can go back.
During the Munich Security Conference, there was talk of a possible ceasefire for Syria. With over 20 warring parties there, do you think this is likely?
Well I am not very optimistic. When I was in Lebanon, just on the very same day, Russian planes were bombing Aleppo. And the people whom I was taking to in the north, in Beirut and Tripoli, they were saying their family members were in danger in Aleppo and that they couldn't understand why Aleppo was suddenly being bombed at all because there is no ISIS there, and there wasn't even any fighting going on for quite a long time. If you ask the question, "are you here, willing to go back to Syria?" the answer is always, "yes, I want to go back to Syria." But to the next question, "how much time would you need to believe that it is stable there?" the answers are quite different. There is a big distrust to international efforts as well as to the ability of the international community to maintain peace because they are seeing what is happening - that Russia, if they want, they bomb everybody, they support Assad to just win against the opposition. So this is not an invitation to negotiations. It is about who's going to win or lose.
Regarding refugees coming to Europe, generally speaking, there has been much debate on religion. For example, Hungary closing its borders to refugees on the basis of religion, claiming integration would be difficult for non-Christians. Do you think religion should be left out of the discussion or do you believe it does play a valid role in integration and that must it be brought up?
Well I know the Middle East quite well and I feel that the politicians are making a huge mistake and over-simplifying. Those who know Syrian Christians and those who know the specificities of Christianity in these countries also know that there is no easy way to say that because they are Christians, they are similar to the people living in Hungary and Poland and in Germany. They are not. They are very different people with very different habits and religion has no specific meaning in bringing them closer to our values and our way of life. That is always a difficult process and it doesn't matter what religion is involved - whether it is Islam or Christianity or other religions. These are cultural differences that matter. So for me, any kind of religious distinction is artificial and based on ignorance - a lack of knowledge of what really makes these people different and what really makes us so difficult and so troublesome to accommodate them and to live together if they come to our countries. So for me, this is an artificial dilemma. And if it is based on religion, then of course, it is also against core European values. We cannot make a distinction among people because of their religion. We should make a distinction based on their needs and their suffering. And those who are refugees, who have escaped from the war, they should be treated according to our European values. They need to receive help.
What are the differences that you are seeing between the refugees coming to Europe and the ones staying in the region and what is missing in the debate?
This is exactly the part of the debate that is missing. We are so busy discussing what to do with several hundred thousand refugees on our soil and we are not engaged with even 10 percent of the debate on how to help those millions of people who are in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Political engagement, financial engagement, and also media engagement is in striking disproportion.
And those people have been there for much longer than the masses coming to Europe.
Exactly, and we are talking about years, not months, years. So it is so striking that we are not able to debate this issue before they hit our shores. But one lesson that I strongly believe we need to learn is that there are no distant problems. Every distant problem will come to our door sooner or later. So building fences, isolating, building walls is never a solution, it only delays the arrival of the problems.
The European Endowment for Democracy (EED) is a grant-giving organization that supports local actors of democratic change in Europe and beyond. Jerzy Pomianowski is the former deputy foreign minister of Poland and the EED's executive director. Mr. Pomianowski will join us this summer at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn to discuss Media. Freedom. Values.